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Click for pictures“More and more
  drivers are picking up
  a ‘lifestyle’, range-
  topping, luxury-spec
pick-up. Having tested
  the award-winning
  Isuzu Rodeo Denver
  Max, we can appreciate
  their appeal”

First the GIs were 'over here', then America gave us McDonalds and now we're also driving their favourite car — the pick-up. Increasing numbers of private motorists are choosing top-grade pick-ups, either as practical recreational accessories for towing a horse box or power boat, or as a full-time second family car. Many owners like them so much they wouldn't drive anything else. We're not talking any old basic commercial open-back trucks here, but the large double cab models with four doors and comfortable seating for five.

Launched in the UK in November 2003, Isuzu's Rodeo has racked up a number of awards as well as being acknowledged as the most up-to-date and sophisticated in its class. Being voted 'Best Pick-up' and the Caravan Club's '2005 Towcar of the Year — Utility Class' made it an obvious choice for a road test. We reviewed the top of the range four-door double cab Denver Max model with the 3.0-litre turbodiesel and standard five-speed manual gearbox. Additionally, our test model was fitted with the newly-available Prodrive performance pack that boosts power from 130 to 153bhp at the push of a button.

Aimed at the fast-growing leisure market, the top-spec Rodeo Denver Max definitely looks the business. Jewel-like, vertically-stacked multi-reflector headlamps swoop into the bonnet line to give it a bold and purposeful air that's as sharp as many a quality SUV. A smart chrome-trimmed A-bar (made from pedestrian-safe soft plastic) adds to the look, while other chrome styling highlights include a lattice-pattern chrome grille, chromed door mirrors, full-length polished steel side-steps, chromed rear bumper and tail lamp guards and brushed stainless steel kick plates. The high-gloss metallic paint finish of our test car was first class, as were the tight panel-gaps. Attractive 5-spoke 18-inch alloy wheels shod with 255/60 Pirelli Scorpion Zero tyres nestle under strongly-defined wheelarches and the four-door 'double cab' design is particularly well-integrated with the open rear load-bed, given a tidy 'all of a piece' look. All in all, a handsome piece of kit.

First contact with the body confirms the quality look. The exterior door handles are of a grab-type design with an especially light movement. They're nice to the touch and feel positive when pulled. If you have never seen the inside a pick-up, the Denver Max's roomy cabin will be an eye-opener. Climb inside. Actually, you just sit and slide in because it's just the right height off the ground. And you'll see it's not so different from a normal car. Well-equipped with air-conditioning (including a pollen filter), there's also four electric windows (the driver gets one-shot up/down), powered door mirrors, a 6-speaker sound system with radio/CD player, four-speed wipers with intermittent control, heated rear window, power steering, good quality cloth seats and door trims in a smart dark grey patterned material and a four-spoke leather-trimmed steering wheel.

The commanding driving position is good, aided by quick 'step-less' backrest adjusters and a tiltable steering column that adjusts both height and tilt at the same time. The instrument cluster is made up of three large dials placed side-by-side dead ahead of the driver: rev-counter, speedometer and a combined fuel and coolant temperature gauge. A tidy centre stack houses all the important secondary controls and switchgear including easy-to-use rotary-design air-conditioning controls and the switch for 'shifting-on-the fly'. This lets you toggle between 4WD or 2WD on the move at speeds up to 60mph. There's also a four-wheel Low ratio switch but to engage it the Rodeo must be stationary. Large door mirrors make all round visibility even better. The PPP 'Power Drive' booster button is conveniently to hand to the left of the steering column.

The Denver Max's cabin is accommodatingly wide with plenty of head, leg, elbow and shoulder room. A nice touch is the angled rear seat backrest that's slanted at a comfortable angle. Rear seat legroom is also generous, and foot room benefits from a full-width flat floor. Wide rear doors that open up to nearly 70 degrees make for a tidy entry and exit. Non-slip side-steps are functional, not just pretty. When not carrying a full complement of passengers, the rear seat backrest can be folded for extra internal load space. Minor storage space is well catered for by a number of useful cubbies.

Power comes from a 3.0-litre direct-injection intercooled turbodiesel. As mentioned earlier, our test Denver Max came with the optional Prodrive Performance Pack. This uses a reprogrammed electronic control to uprate the fuel supply and ignition timing to boost power and torque at the push of a button.

Costing just 760 including VAT and fitting, PPP (from rally specialists Prodrive) boosts power to 153bhp and, more importantly — especially for towing and load-lugging duties — increases torque from 206.5lb ft to a beefy 258.1lb ft at 2,000rpm. That's ample punch, both low-down and at the top-end and also on or off the public highways.

Push the fascia-mounted PPP button and the superior power and torque is immediately noticeable, as is the stronger throttle response and increased flexibility. Zero to 60mph acceleration is reduced from 16.8 to a brisk 12.4 seconds. Top speed remains at a perfectly functional 96mph. Being a diesel, it responds best if you're in the right gear at the right time but making this ultra-easy is a smooth-shifting five-speed gearchange action. Fuel economy is far better than we'd been expecting, with an overall test figure of 28mpg. Officially the Denver Max will return 25.7, 34.9 and 30.7mpg on the Urban, Extra Urban and Combined cycles respectively.

Beneath the smart exterior, the Rodeo Denver's cab rides on a com-pletely separate tough ladder frame chassis for maximum load-carrying and durability. But despite the 'workhorse' toughness, the handling and ride quality is remarkably civilised. Unladen, there's no discernible choppiness. It drives and steers decently — courtesy of direct rack-and-pinion power-assisted steering — and travelling either in the front or the back of the cabin is pleasantly comfortable, quiet and relaxed. The brakes bite well and the Denver Max is unexpectedly entertaining to drive. Should you cross the Channel, you'll find that 90mph in fifth gear requires an easy 3,500rpm, at which speed the Denver Max feels reassuringly stable. You can leave it in top all the way down to 50mph, when it will still pick-up again without complaint.

Safety can, happily, be taken for granted, with twin front airbags and side protection door beams for all doors. Both the front and rear of the body have special crush zones designed to provide maximum absorption during impacts, while the centre section and chassis are specially reinforced. There are three-point seat-belts for all occupants, including the centre rear passenger. There are also headrests for four and the front seat-belts have impact load-limiting pre-tensioners and are height-adjustable, as are the two outer rear seat-belts. Commendably, there's an ISOFIX child seat mounting on the front passenger seat as well as on the two outer rear seats underscoring its suitability for use as a 'lifestyle' family vehicle.

Standard active safety features include ABS with EBD. Electronic Brakeforce Distribution is especially important on a pick-up as it has to cope with a wide variation between laden and unladen weight. The Rodeo's EBD compensates for the front and rear load differences during braking — before the ABS intervenes — to prevent rear axle lock-up. And adding to the safety hardware is the selectable 4WD.

A single, centrally-mounted handle opens the tailgate and sturdy stays let you lock it at 90-degrees although it can be dropped down a full 180 degrees to hang vertically for easier loading/unloading particularly bulky items. Cargo space, payloads and braked towing weights are among the best, with a 1,380mm load-floor length in the lined load-bay, 1,055kg carrying capacity and a 3,000kg braked towing capability. Alternatively, the Rodeo can be fitted with an optional side-glazed cargo top which effectively turns it into a versatile, go-anywhere estate car.

Strapping torque plus generous axle articulation mean the 4x4 is a credible player off-road, and proving that Isuzu has taken the Rodeo's all-terrain abilities very seriously is the rear limited-slip differential for added traction in slippery conditions, as well as a generous nine inches of ground clearance. Approach and departure angles are 35 degrees and 21 degrees. And, as you'd also expect of something with good off-road capability, there's also extensive under body protection such as skid plates in selected vulnerable areas. In low ratio, there's ample torque for powering up treacherously muddy slopes. But if all you're planning on visiting are smart shopping centre car parks you can relax — the Denver Max glides easily under the height bars. Have fun!

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Isuzu Rodeo Denver Max PPP | 20,679
Maximum speed: 96mph | 0-60mph: 12.4 seconds
Test MPG: 28mpg | Power: 153bhp | Torque: 258.1lb ft

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------------------------------------------------------------------------ Isuzu Rodeo